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Arts & Entertainment

For Musician, Stroke Leads to a “Stroke of Genius””

Thursday event at the Brattle to benefit BU Aphasia Center

In 2003, California advertising copywriter Dan Mountain spent 21 days in a coma after suffering a stroke in his home. Doctors told his wife that there was no chance of recovery, and after three weeks, she removed him from life support and brought him home. Hours later, Mountain woke up and began speaking to friends and family about his experience.

Musician Marc Black, a longtime friend of Mountain’s, encouraged him to write about the thoughts and feelings that emerged from the experience, and over the course of four days, the two produced 13 songs inspired by Mountain’s poems. Black, a singer-songwriter from Katonah, N.Y., called on collaborators such as Art Garfunkel, John Sebastian, and the Dixie Hummingbirds, and the resulting album, Stroke of Genius, was released in 2006. The album caught the attention of filmmaker Bahman Soltani, and a documentary about Mountain’s recovery and the subsequent artistic collaboration, also titled Stroke of Genius, came out the same year.

Now, Black is touring in support of the album and the film and will perform at a special screening at Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre on Thursday, June 14. The event’s proceeds will benefit Boston University’s Aphasia Community Resource Center at Sargent College, which provides support and education for people and families affected by aphasia, a language disorder caused by an injury to the brain. BU Today spoke with Black about the work behind Stroke of Genius.

BU Today: Where did the idea for this collaboration come from?
Black: Dan was my friend, and at first — after he had the stroke and was in the coma, and I heard that they were pulling life support — we assumed that it was over. Then, all of a sudden, I got a phone call a couple of days later saying that Dan was back. So I flew out to Venice, Calif., and he was barely back, but I noticed he had very interesting things to say about where he had been and where he was. It seemed like he’d had some enlightenment.

As he got better, I encouraged him to write about his experience, and he wrote his sentiments down in poem form, and after about eight months, he said, “I’ve got some stuff here.” I flew out again, spent four days at his house, and we created 13 songs. They surprised all of us with how beautiful they were, the purity of the sentiment.

I got some musicians together and we did the album, and it seemed to affect people so strongly that this fellow wanted to make a documentary about Dan’s experience and all of the ripple effects and creativity that came out of it.

What are the major concepts or themes of the songs?
Gratitude is a big feeling, the acceptance of impermanence, the realization that you’re not alone in this, that millions of other people have gone through it. One of the big ones is that even though you’re a different person now and your life is different, it still has intrinsic value and worth.

Describe the process of putting your friend’s poems to music.
He handed me the words, and at first I thought maybe they were too simple. But once I started to play with them in my mind, I realized that they had very deep feeling and just lent themselves to music. No song took more than an hour to create.

What do you think the album conveys?
Like with most art, it depends on what your life experience is. If you have had a similar experience, I guess you would see it in the literal way. But a lot of people have written and told me that they just applied it to their own lives, whether it’s losing a girlfriend or a big life change or somehow understanding life’s big lessons with impermanence. Just about everybody reports some kind of uplifting inspiration. The song “For a Little While” was reviewed on a radio show, and they had no idea it was about a stroke — they just related to it like a straight-out love song. If a song is good, you can write your own story when you listen to it.

What are your plans for the documentary and tour?
This will be the New England premiere of the film. It has been shown in an arts center north of New York City, and it will be shown in Los Angeles in September. It was featured at the Westchester Film Fest and also at the Park City Film Music Festival, where it won a silver medal. And I was asked to perform at Sundance.

This album is really the first of its kind, and we feel there will be a lot more of this kind of thing happening. To create music from such dire circumstances is not really that common, and to do that, and to find joy in it, is something that we’re very proud of, and we think people should hear.

The main thing is it’s an education for people who haven’t been around stroke survivors — to help realize what they’re going through — and for stroke survivors to realize that they’re not alone and can be very proud of who they are at this point. The main thing here is dealing with the fact that you’re a survivor, and we’ve all kind of survived one thing or another in our lives.

Stroke of Genius begins at 7 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St., Cambridge. Visit www.brattlefilm.org for tickets, which are $25, or call 617-876-6837.

Click the audio player below to hear “Let ’im Go,” a song from Stroke of Genius.

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.